All children lie from time to time – it’s actually a normal part of child development. Thankfully, it’s not a judgment or an indictment on our parenting. Phew! Being truthful is something our children learn, like how to tie their shoes or swim in the deep end.
Although, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore it. We can recognize that it is normal and consider why our children may feel the need to lie. And in doing so, we can teach the importance of honesty.
And to do that, we must first understand why our children might lie and how those reasons might evolve as they grow and mature. Our toddlers and preschoolers are too young to understand what it means to lie. When you work with children of this age, you realize that they are not lying to you on purpose, exaggeration is just an expression of their great imagination. Their little brains may have a hard time differentiating between lies, exaggerations, wishful thinking, and the truth. That’s why your preschooler can sit there with half a cookie crumb on his face and tell you that he hasn’t had any cookies today.
On the other hand, slightly older children from kindergarten to second grade, lie for a reason. So at this age, you want to find the root of the lie. Maybe they’re doing it because they want something or want to impress someone, or maybe they’re afraid of letting you down and being punished. When we catch our children in these kinds of lies, the greatest thing we can do to encourage truth-telling is to respond with kindness, empathy, and compassion.
Later, from the age of 8, we begin to see our children’s lies become more intentional. So, they start to “forget” things on purpose. At this age, their social status starts to become a priority for them, so they might start making things up to impress their friends. You might also notice that they begin to stretch the truth to protect their privacy or test the limits of their independence.
Lastly, we will try to get to the “why” of our children’s lies to respond with compassion and use it for a teaching moment. So here are my 4 tips to raising honest children:
1. Don’t Ask Questions You Already Know The Answer To.
We don’t need to test our children. This is not an effective way to teach honesty. It encourages them to lie and then we will feel frustrated or triggered that they just made a bald-faced lie to our faces and we’ll likely respond in that frustration. Which, makes them feel ashamed, in a state of deregulated panic, and then we’ve lost the opportunity to parent, coach, teach, and effective discipline.
You already know what they did. If you ask them, you are deceiving them. You’re giving their little brains the perfect opportunity to try to weasel out of it. We’re giving them a way out, and then when they take it, we’re getting even more upset. Therefore, the result is more likely to be that both of you are upset, embarrassed, crying, yelling, and the opportunity to teach about the underlying problem and honesty has vanished.
So what should I do instead? – Be honest with them. Let them know that you know what they did. Acknowledging that you already know the truth is being honest with them and avoid putting them in a position where the easy way out is to lie.
2. Discipline With the Intent to Teach
We know that telling lies is even part of normal childhood development. So we catch our kid in a lie – now what?!
- The first thing you gotta do is regulate yourself. You’re not going to be able to have an effective parenting or teaching moment around the importance of telling the truth if you’re not regulated. Find something that works for you, it can be mindful breathing, mantras, or prayers.
- Calmly acknowledge the lie. Then take some time to explore it. Ask your children why they felt the need to lie to you, and then listen without judging.
- Empathize with them. Talk to them about the importance of honesty and ask why they didn’t tell you the truth at that time. Tell them that we all make mistakes and they don’t have to hide theirs from you because no matter what they do, you’re still going to love them. Thus, you are setting up a safe space for them to practice honesty.
With this, when they grow up and have a boss, or start dating, or their friendships get more complicated, they’ve had practice telling the truth and will be more likely to do so even when it feels difficult or uncomfortable. So the bottom line here is just to remember our role – we’re the teacher. We’re the parent. We’re the coach. We’re not the police. We’re not the enforcer. We’re not the dictator. And if we want to see more honesty, we have to first create an environment to encourage honesty.
3. See and Acknowledge When They Tell the Truth
When we see them choosing to tell the truth instead of a lie, or when we see them apologizing about lying and deciding to tell the truth, see it and acknowledge how hard that is! Acknowledge it was the right thing to do – that it was a good decision. And do so with specifics – the more detailed we can be in our praise, the better we’re teaching. That praise is going to build their confidence in telling the truth and it’s going to reinforce the positive behavior of telling the truth.
4. Model Truth-Telling
The best way to teach our kids about anything is to be it. So, if honesty is important to us, the best way to teach honesty is, to be honest with ourselves. As adults, we see a lot of this behavior as harmless. And maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – but either way, we’re teaching our kids to not be truthful. And when they’re young, if they see and model and get in the habit of telling white lies and little fibs, it’s going to be easier for them to slip into the habit of telling bigger lies.